Ouch Was An Understatement


This blog entry about the events of Monday, January 31, 2005 was originally posted on February 07, 2005.

DAY 471:  “Okay, make us cry,” I said to our tuk-tuk driver after negotiating a day rate for Noelle and me.  We instructed him to take us to the darker side of Phnom Penh, the sites where the helpless cries of innocents were silenced, where people were tortured and killed by a ruthless, inhumane dictator — and within our lifetimes.

JUST ELEVEN DAYS AFTER THE 60th anniversary of Auschwitz, the Nazi prison concentration camp in Poland, my travels brought me to the site of a similar genocidal center, Choeung Ek, more commonly known as the “Killing Fields” after the 1984 movie.  It was the site of a turbulent time in Cambodia’s history — the world’s history for that matter — where megalomaniac Communist dictator Pol Pot exterminated 40,000 of the total estimated two million souls of his own Cambodian people, in his efforts to “renew Cambodia” after the French occupation.  As a display sign at the Killing Fields put it, “Even in this 20th century… the clique of Pol Pot criminals had committed a heinous genocidal act.  They massacred the population with atrocity in a large scale.  It was more cruel than the genocidal act committed by the Hitler Fascists, which the world has never met.”

Pol Pot, a Cambodian ex-pat who had been living and studying in France, returned to his homeland and was eventually appointed to lead the country.  However, in his reign from 1975-1979, he and his fellow expatriate intellectuals began political and social reform with his party, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), more commonly known in the history books as the Khmer Rouge:  “Khmer” used as a tie-in with Cambodia’s former glory; “Rouge” for the color of blood that the party was fueled by, as stated by the lyrics of the party’s anthem.  Like Hitler’s Nazi party, Khmer Rouge’s “glory” depended on the oppression of others and with ultimately their deaths.

Pol Pot’s strategy of reform started off rather counter-productively; instead of pumping more resources into industry and education, he simply ceased them, transforming developing urban centers into wastelands.  Cambodian citizens had no choice but to flee to the countryside in hopes of a better life, but it was there that many were forced into prison camps and eventually exterminated.  There was a definitely police state in the country during Pol Pot’s reign; no one could question authority or talk about questioning authority — anyone doing so would be put to death.  Everyone was forcibly brainwashed to support Pol Pot and his murderous ways.  The Khmer Rouge leader kept spies at every corner; people soon couldn’t even trust their own kin for fear that something might be reported.  Khmer Rouge led with a bloody iron fist, and what made it worse was that the United States didn’t oppose it; in fact, they considered Khmer Rouge to be the de facto government.

The penalty for opposition against Pol Pot’s regime started in prisons in the urban centers, like Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, more commonly known in the history books by its no-longer-secret codename, “Security 21” or “S21.”  S21 was converted from a former high school and each former classroom was transformed into torture chambers, interrogation rooms, or jail cells — some made of wood, some made of brick.  At first glance, the former high school still looked very much like an old high school (or perhaps a motor lodge), but inside its rooms, photos and props showed just how bloody it was in the late 1970s, in more ways than one (1a, 1b; 2a, 2b; 3a, 3b). 

Ten of thousands were sent to S21, only to be tortured for their insurrectionist thoughts, from drowning to electric shocks to the really wicked act (no slang intended) of pulling out one’s fingernails with pliers and pouring alcohol over the wounds.  “Ouch” was an understatement.  Those who survived S21 wouldn’t survive for long, for they were sent to Choeung Ek, the Killing Fields seventeen kilometers out of town, to meet an even crueler demise.

NOELLE AND I GOT SHAFTED in our tuk-tuk ride to the Killing Fields; for some reason, we managed to get the slowest tuk-tuk in town, one that was passed by every other vehicle on the way, including regular bicycles pedaled by young boys.  No matter; going to a genocidal site wasn’t exactly something we really wanted to rush to, and we made it there with time to kill, no pun intended. 

We decided to hire a guide named Chantheng, who was not only a guide, but our insight into the reign of Pol Pot.  His family had fled Phnom Penh and hid in the northern Battambeng province when he was a child.  His parents commuted far away to wherever they could find work to provide some sort of livelihood for the family, but only he survived.  His two older sisters, ages twelve and fifteen, had been taken and forced into a prison camp and ultimately died of starvation, so Chantheng assumed — he simply never heard from them again.

Visiting the Killing Fields, like the former concentration camp sites of the Nazis, wasn’t exactly a trip to Disney World.  It was the site of 86 mass graves burying 8,985 men, women, and children underground discreetly; Pol Pot the intellectual, cleverly buried the innocent near an old Chinese cemetary, so he could blame the stench of dead bodies on the the former Chinese.  Chantheng took us around the graves, the teeth still found scattered on the ground, and, what Noelle thought was the most haunting sight, the shreds of old clothes that the people once wore, now lying in the dust.

Death wasn’t so easy in Choeung Ek; there were no instantaneous killings with guns.  Pol Pot was a penny-pincher as much as he was a murderous dictator, and wished to save all ammunition for the military.  Therefore, the victims of the Killing Fields met their demise in ultra-violent ways, by strikes to the skull with sticks or the ends of rifles.  For children, strikes to the skull came by the brutal slamming of a head into a Chankiri Tree.  According to Chantheng, many people were buried alive after the torture, only to die slowly and painfully six feet under.  While all this sound very cruel, the worst torture Chantheng spoke us was the beheadings.  No instantaneous French guillotine beheading here — that would be too expensive for Mr. Pot — instead, Pol Pot’s minions slowly sawed off heads with the saw-like teeth of young palm leaves

Ouch was definitely and understatement.

The only symbol of hope at the now Choeung Ek historical site wasn’t so much a symbol of hope, but a memorial to those who perished there.  Seventeen-hundred skulls (picture above) of the 40,000 odd victims of the Killing Fields were placed in a stupa constructed in 1988 — many of which sported the skull fractures of cruel and intolerable punishment. 

IT WASN’T UNTIL 1979 that the murderous reign of Pol Pot came to an end, when the Vietnamese arrived and liberated the Cambodians.  After that, Cambodia started its slow and rocky way to recovery, much of that coming from tourism for anyone who could stomach such a story.  Although Noelle nor I shed a tear that day, it was completely depressing anyway — and what better way to cheer up than watching Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, starring Lindsay Lohan, which came on the local “bootleg” channel that broadcasted the feed of some guy putting in DVDs into a Sony DVD player.  (You could see him push play and turn on subtitles.)  The cheering up continued at dinner when we had amok, a Cambodian fish curry specialty served on a big platter with little individual lids, and after-dinner cocktails at the Heart of Darkness bar, which cheered us up with 1980s music. 

While teeny-bopper movies and 1980s music won’t make the hurting of Cambodia’s past disappear, it was a start.  Sort of.


Next entry: Staring Out The Window

Previous entry: “The Trinidad Show” Live

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Comments for “Ouch Was An Understatement”

  • YOU SBRs have to RSVP too!

    Can someone keep a headcount tally?

    MORE TO COME as the countdown to DAY 503 continues…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/06  at  02:04 PM

  • First! It’s been a while…

    I just saw Hotel Rwanda. It’s hard to believe that despite all of our advances as a global society these atrocities still occur in our time period.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/06  at  03:40 PM

  • If you are RSVPing…if you could kindly RSVP in the Day 503 Trailer post…


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/06  at  04:10 PM

  • I will be there for the RETURN

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/06  at  04:37 PM

  • Ok, that entry was depressing….but what is more depressing is that I can’t make Day 503!!!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/06  at  06:50 PM

  • Pretty graphic pic’s but great history lesson our fine history teacher Erik!  Depressing that I will also miss Day 503!  Hope there will be lots of posts to keep us who can’t make it informed!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/07  at  01:57 AM

  • Depressing is an understatement…..........

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/07  at  07:26 AM

  • Erik: On a lighter note, maybe you should appoint someone to be the official photographer at the party. I know you will be too busy!  And I want to see pics of everyone.  Put faces to the names if you know what I mean!  And maybe the rest of us unfortunate readers can send you a pic too!  What do you think?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/07  at  07:30 AM

  • JANICE:  Surely!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/07  at  10:12 AM

  • Hope to have a new batch up soon… 

    PLEASE RSVP, even if you are an SBR…  The difference in number of RSVPs and people who actually showed up for the Going Away Party in 2003 was drastically different; we had to spill out into the street!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/07  at  10:38 AM

  • Td0t - The atrocities of the human race continue today - in Sudan. Today, Feb 8, some high-ranking official from the Sudanese Islamic Front is speaking to the UN general assembly - and they are very guilty of genocide there. Now. Not 20 years ago, or 70 years ago - now. It’s scary what people will think.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/07  at  10:59 AM

  • Let’s not forget about Zimbabwe!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/07  at  11:01 AM

  • Noelle: You’re right… I was thinking about the genocide in Darfur while I was watching the movie.

    I couldn’t even have the comforting thought that it’s over, because history is repeating itself just 10 short years later!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/07  at  12:52 PM

  • Erik,

    Unfortunately I won’t be able to make the Mar 5 party, I’ll be in the third week of my RTW trip down in Costa Rica.

    I am however planning on being in New York for a couple days on March 26, 27, 28th before flying out on the 29th to start the European portion of my trip.  I’d love to get together for a beer or three. 

    I’ll email you as it gets closer and see what’s up.

    Thanks again for the all the help and inspiration!

    Posted by Dan (NeverBC)  on  02/07  at  07:09 PM

  • For better or worse, at least we learn these things through the BLOG. Somber stuff.  Another not-so-distant history lesson from professor Fuzz-E.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/07  at  09:31 PM

  • Speaking of genocide - has anyone seen Hotel Rwanda?  Incredibly well done movie. 

    THANKS for the postcard Erik! Got it today! Yippee!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/08  at  12:33 AM

  • What time is the return party?

    Posted by Alyson  on  02/08  at  10:20 PM

  • ALYSON - Time to be determined…Have to figure out what time Erik is actually making the Return back….but I would think around 8 or 9ish?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/09  at  01:36 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Staring Out The Window

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“The Trinidad Show” Live


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